Just What The Doctor Ordered

Originally Published In The Daily Free Press on 2/23/12

Dr. Dog is finally hitting the big time, but to their droves of loyal supporters, this shouldn’t be a surprise.

While ardent fans have long expected this success, to many outsiders, the underdog Philadelphia group appears to have come out of nowhere. In reality though, it took time to get there.

The roots of Dr. Dog were planted more than twenty years ago when lead guitarist Scott McMicken and bassist Toby Leaman started jamming together as young pups in eighth grade. After recruiting permanent members at West Chester University and playing more than ten years together as a creative unit, Dr. Dog has finally hit their stride.

After the lo-fi, do-it-yourself, ‘60s-influenced Toothbrush, Dr. Dog released their finest LP, the tight Easy Beat in 2005. After two more quality albums, Dr. Dog pushed past their ardent ‘60s aesthetics with their strong Shame, Shame in 2010, which saw an increase in lead guitar and blues influences.

Similar to The National and Portugal. The Man who have taken years to gain national exposure, Dr. Dog is a band that is appreciated more with age. The antithesis of a buzz band, Dr. Dog has always written songs the way they set out to do, but are just now being rewarded. Dr. Dog is the type of band that steadily engrosses you as you explore their back-catalogue and B-sides. They are not simply the flavor-of-the-month buzz band that will pack venues for a few months before shuffling back into obscurity to make room for the next. With Dr. Dog, people won’t be coming to a show for a song and leaving once it has played (cough cough Foster The People).

Dr. Dog’s latest endeavor, Be The Void, builds off the momentum of Shame, Shame and encapsulates the band’s attempt to capture their brilliant live aesthetic in the studio.

Right away, this record is different. Album opener, “Lonesome,” is a foot-stomping number with twangy guitar, consciously imperfect timing, and an infectious sing-along vibe. Following is a 180-degree shift into the sinister and sleuthy intro of  “That Old Black Hole.” Noticeably electronic, McMicken’s off-kilter voice and quick dada-esque lyrics (“There’s an elephant in my head and I tip toe around it, there are eggshells on the floor therefore I never touch the ground”) soon kick in. The track brightens its tune and climaxes into a cacophony of sound before abruptly transforming into the album’s highest point, the Toby Leaman number, “These Days.” Sounding as if it belongs on Wilco’s classic Summerteeth, the song starts with 40 seconds of fast and furious guitar. This tremendous momentum drives the track as quick piano and guitar flourishes add to its undulating nervousness. “I don’t want waste time,” sings Leaman, and this track wastes no time at all, almost unnerving listeners with its rapid momentum. “Over Here, Over There” is another track that maintains the same high-energy vibe.

Dr. Dog tends to draw influence from the Beatles-era of music, and “How Long Must I Wait” is an interesting departure. It’s a throwback to their early lo-fi sound, but with decidedly more indie influences. It’s a great song for McMicken whose voice takes on another dimension in the lo-fi aesthetic.

Dr. Dog flawlessly trades vocals between the off-kilter yelp of McMicken and the raspy howl of Leaman, and the difference in songwriting and musicianship gives the band an incredibly strong dynamic. On Be The Void, the two singers craft quality songs, but Leaman ultimately outduels McMicken.  His “Vampire” is a dirty and passionate song; when Leaman sings, “You’re a vampire baby, no reflection at all,” you can practically see the wad of spit flying out of his mouth.  Toby’s raw emotion is contagious and this number is among the rawest in his catalogue (place it alongside “The Pretender,” “The Ark,” and “Die, Die, Die”).

Leaman’s other standout track is the spastically brilliant “Warrior Man.” Spacy with bizarre lyrics, the song could masquerade as the main theme for a horribly cheesy ‘70s/’80s sci-fi movie. Only Dr. Dog could make a song with a chorus as bizarre as this one sound good. Leaman also shines in “Get Away” and “Big Girl.”

Be The Void finally comes to an end with the rootsy psychedelia of “Turning of the Century.’” The subdued track, which could double as a lost cut from Paul McCartney’s debut album, brings the album to a serene and peaceful finish.

After the final notes play out, take this album off the turntable and place it on the shelf right next toEasy Beat and Shame, Shame. It’s an instant classic from the band and, while not their best album, is poised to become their most successful. Though it may have taken Dr. Dog over a decade to make a name for themselves, they are now here to stay. If Toby Leaman and Scott McMicken have been successfully making music together for twenty years already, who’s to say they won’t go for another twenty?

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